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March 2005

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Personal Comment on "Democracy" As A Possible Two-edged Sword
By Henry E. Mattox

"We most certainly want Syria out of our country, but we equally don’t want democracy! What we need in Lebanon is a benevolent dictatorship!"

Thus spoke a longtime Lebanese friend (call her "M."), resident with her family in Beirut, in a recent telephone call from London where she was visiting. Her statement, while a bit startling, conveyed meaning when she, a Palestine-born Christian, elaborated:

In Lebanon under what would be a "democratic" system, as M. called it, our friend held that the Muslims -- the Shiites and the Sunnis, who constitute some sixty percent of Lebanon’s population – clearly outnumber the Maronite Christians. Thus they would outvote Maronites at the ballot box. A freely elected government eventually would lead, she fears, to a political system governed under Islamic Sharia law, with its restrictions on the political and personal freedoms of women.

"I am a woman first and foremost," M. commented. "What would democracy mean to me if, as a result of its institution, I am afflicted as a woman with dress codes and the loss of inheritance and other rights that I now have?"

Under a system of open elections in Lebanon, M. expressed concern that before long she -- university-educated, multilingual, and Western-oriented, married to an attorney -- would be required to wear traditional dress and head coverings and would lose a number of important legal privileges, all this as a result of a what might be termed "democracy."

Further, she noted that Syria, if pressured out of Lebanon as now seems likely, in reaction might well come under the sway of radical Islamist elements and change from the secular state that it now is into one ruled by what M. called "the Muslim Brotherhood."

Our Beirut friend admitted ruefully that she had no one in mind to fill the position of "benevolent dictator" for Lebanon. For that reason, the looming prospect of open voting caused her considerable disquiet.

From this perspective, M.’s apprehensions do not seem warranted, given Lebanon’s history of political power sharing. And whether or not what she fears as a catalyst can be accurately called "democracy" is debatable.

Nonetheless, she raises a question worthy of consideration, especially given the experience of Algeria a decade and a half ago. There, in late1989, Algeria’s ruling military leaders decided to allow political parties to organize. In local elections the following year, an Islamist party won fifty-five percent of the vote. Those in power saw this as a threat (of the sort articulated by our Lebanese friend) and imposed a crackdown that effectively negated Algeria’s tentative step toward democracy and that led to years of violence.

Could, then, the installation of open elections prove to be a two-edged sword in the Middle East? People evidently are talking about and considering democratic norms and voting rights in the region, a development to be welcomed. It would be ironic, however, if the institution of the open ballot should result for some in the unintended consequence, over time, of reduced freedoms.

March 7 2005

American Diplomacy
Copyright © 2005 American Diplomacy Publishers Chapel Hill NC

Dr. Mattox is the editor of American Diplomacy.

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